It’s a time of year when love is on our minds even more than usual一when it’s a word we might whisper across a candlelight dinner, shout into our best friends ear, or use to comment on a delicious new food we’ve discovered.
“Love” is just one word but it exists in numerous forms and contexts. While discussing the ancient Greek’s theories of love in an ethics class, it struck me how inadequate those four letters are in covering the nuance and breadth of the subject. After all, many languages use multiple words to describe different varieties of love. There’s no direct English translation for “firgun” (a Hebrew term indicating a simple, unselfish joy in the good fortune of another) or “forelsket” (the way the Danish describe the euphoria of falling in love).
Because people process their experiences through language, the words at our disposal impact our perception of those experiences一even when they are as universal and basically human as love. The more adept we are at thinking and talking about love, the more we will be able to appreciate all the different ways it manifests in our lives. Here are five terms used in ancient Greece to describe particular ways we humans experience love.
Eros (named after the Greek god of love and fertility) describes a passionate, intense desire for another person. While it includes sexual lust, eros is ultimately a state of the heart that can make us feel overwhelmed or out of control.
The Greeks believed that this experience of falling for another person is related to our general desire to find beauty and virtue in the world. In the words of the philosopher Alexander Moseley, eros “seeks trascendental beauty一the particular beauty of an individual reminds us of true beauty that exists in the world”. Letting yourself be swept away by the beauty and goodness of someone special can remind you of all the goodness that exists on earth.
Eros, with its powerful desire and physical feelings, generally fades with time, but it often gives way to or is reignited by deeper forms of love.
Ludus is a playful love that is often interspersed with eros but contains more. It can refer to the affection between children playing together or young lovers who are not yet committed. It could be the stirring in your stomach you feel as you banter with your date, but it doesn’t have to be romantic. Ludus can also describe the endearment we experience while sharing carefree times with friends, doubling over in laughter or dancing the night away.
Philia is translated into “friendship” but is meant in a serious sense that implies not just fondness but deep connection and loyalty. One might even be willing to die for philia. In a romantic context, it’s where we may find ourselves when we outgrow eros and the relationship rises to the next level. Philia can also describe the bond between friends who have undergone difficult times together, sacrificed for each other, or shared their innermost emotions. Aristotle wrote that, “things that cause friendship (philia) are: doing kindnesses; doing them unasked; and not proclaiming the fact that they are done.” While philia doesn’t require eros and ludus, all of these types of love can feed into and strengthen each other.
Agape is a spiritual and all encompassing love for living beings. It can be paralleled with metta (universal loving-kindness) in Buddhist thought or the Judaic-Christian tradition of loving and being loved by God.
This selfless, unconditional spirit leads one to approach all they encounter with empathy and compassion. It applies not just to ‘loved ones’ in the personal sense, but to acquaintances, strangers, and even those who have done us harm.
According to the School of Life, Agape is “the kind of love we experience in relation to someone’s weakness rather than in relation to their strength”. It reminds us that love is not just about admiring one’s virtues, but also about extending “sympathy and generosity towards what is fragile and imperfect in us”.
Philautia is last on my list, but the most important place to start; self-love. The currently trendy (and accurate!) mantra of “you have to love yourself before you can love others” was recognized by renowned Greek scholars back in 300 BC. Aristotle believed that “all friendly feelings for others are an extension of a man’s feelings for himself.”
The Greeks distinguished between different types of self love, acknowledging that one strand of it can be unhealthy and narcissistic, promoting obsessions with personal fame and fortune. Philautia, however, is a healthy self-compassion that enhances your broader capacity for love. You can only share what you already have within yourself.
While our culture emphasizes romantic relationships, love can wear dozens of different disguises and show up in all sorts of unexpected ways. We’ll never have enough words to label each of the precious, particular manifestations of love in our individual lives, but thinking about love in these more specific terms gives us a better grip on its nature.
Most of us will never find one person who can constantly provide us with every type of love that we need throughout our entire lives. Luckily, we don’t need such a miraculous being to be happy and feel loved. Love is already quietly, immovably, all around us, whether or not we choose to recognize it as such.